Getting Past the Culture Clash

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Hazel Rose Markus, behavioral science professor at Stanford University, founder and former director of Stanford's Research Institute for Comparative Studies in Race and Ethnicity, and co-author (with Alana Conner) of Clash!: 8 Cultural Conflicts That Make Us Who We Are (Hudson Street Press, 2013) identifies eight hot button issues that divide us and offers advice for bridging the divide -- that boils down to independence vs. interdependence.

Excerpt: Clash! 8 Cultural Conflicts That Make Us Who We Are


CHAPTER 1: Hearts and Minds, East and West

Hazel cold-called the graduate student at the end of the seminar table.

“Do you have something to add?” Schooled in South Korea, Heejung Kim was now deep into her Ph. D. studies at Stanford. Hazel was her adviser and expected students to chime in during class discussions.

Yet again, Kim shook her head and whispered, “No.” Slightly peeved, Hazel tried once more: “Heejung, what do you think about this claim that Asian students who sit silently in class and don’t contribute to the discussion aren’t thinking for themselves?” Hazel was referring to a widely publicized news article by a college professor who criticized Asian and Asian- American students for not participating in class. 1 The professor concluded that the students were “freeloading,” and that “to become independent thinkers, they need to learn to express themselves.” The other students waved their hands in the air and fidgeted in their chairs. Finally, Kim looked down and quietly asserted, “You know, talking and thinking are not the same thing.” No one knew what to say, so the class carried on to another point. Later that day, Kim e-mailed Hazel her response to the weekly class assignment. As usual, her commentary was both deep and succinct. But what really caught Hazel’s eye was Kim’s new e-mail signature: “The empty carriage rattles the loudest.”

For all their interdependence, Asian students don’t talk much. At least that’s the perception many educators wrestle with, including Gail Davidson. Davidson is the principal of Lynbrook High School in Cupertino, California, which serves more than 1,700 students, 80 percent of whom are of Asian heritage. A public school, Lynbrook High is the envy of its competitors, with one of California’s highest academic performance index ratings, a blue ribbon from the U. S. Department of Education, and a gold medal from Newsweek’s rankings of the nation’s high schools. “Our students are fantastic and achieve at a high level by all objective standards,” Davidson says, “but our teachers are concerned when students don’t speak up in class. Students absolutely need to develop their communication skills to succeed in the wider world.”

East- West clashes, like the one over how much students should speak, cause ripples of contention through schools around the world, ranging from prekindergarten classrooms to postdoctoral lecture halls. In the United States, for example, many teachers see how Asian interdependence can send a kid to Harvard (as it did Chua’s daughter), but they still feel put off by it. “Why do Asian students so seldom talk or get excited?” they ask. “Why do they put their parents’ wishes before their own? Why do they work so hard to fit in?” These are not the sorts of hearts and minds most Western teachers were trained to educate.

Western teachers also worry that their students with Eastern backgrounds are not cultivating the skills they will need in the Real World. Some even see how the independence of Westerners can hold Easterners back, both in the classroom and in the workplace. At the same time, many suspect, as did the op-ed writer, that Eastern students’ way of being is somehow unfair to their Western classmates.

A closer examination of the selves of people with Eastern and Western heritages can help demystify their diff erent ways of doing school. For many East Asians and their children growing up in the West, listening, following the “right” way, fitting in, and keeping calm are not odd classroom behaviors; they are the very route to being a good person— a good interdependent self, Eastern style.  But for their Western classmates and teachers, speaking up, choosing your own way, standing out, and getting excited are also ways of being a good person— but in this case, a good independent self, Western style. Understanding the meanings and intentions behind these ways of being can not only dispel bad feelings in school and at work, but also help us harness the strengths of Eastern and Western selves for the betterment of both groups.


Talk or Listen?

After six years in the United States, Heejung Kim was getting irritated with professors needling her to talk. She had been taught that silent contemplation, not half- baked chattering, paved the path to wisdom. As the great Confucian sage Lao Tzu wrote: “He who knows does not speak. He who speaks does not know.”

Kim knew she felt comfortable listening without talking in a way that many of her European- American colleagues did not. And she knew that connecting what she heard with what she already knew was a lot of work. She definitely did not feel she was freeloading. As a budding cultural psychologist, Kim was learning that irritation was often the bellwether of a good research idea. So she decided to explore why Americans worry so much about silence in the classroom. Hers was a rather revolutionary hypothesis: for European Americans, talking helps thinking, but for Koreans and many other East Asians, talking can actually hinder thinking.

She tested her hunch with Richard, a European- American graduate student from New York. Having logged many hours talking on his high school’s debate team, Richard opined, “Talking really helps clarify what you’re thinking. Sometimes it’s hard to know what you think without talking.”

Kim then consulted with other East- Asian students. Akiko, a graduate student from Japan, shared Kim’s frustration with the American assumption that talking is thinking, and supplied her own set of proverbs: “The mouth is the source of misfortune,” “Guard your mouth as though it were a vase,” “You have two ears and one mouth, to be used in that proportion,” and “The duck that quacks the loudest gets shot.”

Armed with these insights, Kim set out to test her ideas. She first devised a survey with statements that reflected both Eastern beliefs about talking and thinking such as “Only in silence can you have clear thoughts and ideas,” and Western beliefs such as “An articulate person is usually a good thinker.” She then asked people in San Francisco and Seoul how much they agreed with the statements. She found that Americans of many different ages and professions thought that talking is good for thinking. Koreans, in contrast, more readily agreed that talking can impede thinking. Just because Americans believe that talking helps them think, however, does not mean they are right. Likewise, East Asians may mistakenly believe that talking interferes with thinking. To find out exactly how talking affects thinking for European Americans and East Asians, Kim asked American students who had grown up speaking English to take a nonverbal intelligence test called the Raven Progressive Matrices. Half the students had European backgrounds, and half had East- Asian backgrounds (including Korean, Chinese, Vietnamese, and Japanese). All the students completed half the intelligence test items in silence, and the other half while “thinking out loud,” that is, verbalizing their problem- solving process. Kim found that the European Americans performed better when they were solving the problems while speaking. In contrast, the Asian Americans performed much worse when they solved the problems while thinking aloud. But when the Asian Americans were allowed to solve problems in silence, they performed better than the European Americans.  For Asian Americans, then, silence is not a sign of checking out. Instead, it produces their best thinking. The op-ed writer was wrong.


Choose My Way or Follow the “Right” Way?

Hazel found herself in the middle of an East- West clash of a different sort when one of her star students fi nished his undergraduate degree. A scholar, musician, and athlete, Bobby Wong had gained admission not only to several top- flight medical schools, but also to a highly competitive workstudy program in China. Bobby sorely wanted to take a year off from school and explore his cultural roots. But his father, a Chinese immigrant, had other ideas.

“C’mon,” Hazel encouraged Bobby, “you just need to explain to your father in a very calm and respectful way that a trip to Mainland China with people who really know the country is an opportunity of a lifetime. Medical school will let you defer your admission for a year. What’s the problem?”

“I explained everything calmly and respectfully,” Bobby replied.

“But he just says, ‘No, you have to start medical school in the fall.’ ”

“But you did so well in undergrad, and you got into every med school

you applied to,” Hazel said. “I’m so proud of you! He must be proud of you, too.”

“He is proud,” Bobby conceded, “but he says the next step on my path is medical school, not a year abroad.”

“Well, I guess he will just have to be angry for a while,” Hazel said.

“Once he sees what you are doing in China, I’m sure he’ll come around.”

“He won’t be angry,” Bobby sighed, “because I’m not going. It’s not up to me; it’s not my choice.” He slumped a bit lower in his seat.

Despite her initial reaction, Hazel knew that Mr. Wong was not being a bully, and that young Bobby had not misplaced his spine. Instead, the Wongs senior and junior were following the logic of interdependence. Independent European- American parents and teachers say that a student should fi rst choose what she wants to do, and then do it her own way.  In the West, choice is perhaps the most important act because it lets people realize all five facets of independence. Choice allows people to express their individuality and unique preferences, influence their environments, exercise their free will, and assert their equality. But interdependent parents such as Wong and Chua lay out a different agenda: I show my child the right thing to do, and then help her do it the right way. In the East, following the right way is a central act because it lets people realize all five facets of interdependence: relating to others, discovering your similarities, adjusting yourself to expectations and the environment, rooting yourself into networks and traditions, and understanding your place in the larger whole.


Mother Knows Best

When you have an interdependent self, you aren’t blazing new trails on a barren social frontier. Instead, you are fi- nding your place in a web of relationships. Most of these relationships ( parent- child, teacher- student, boss- employee) are between levels of a pecking order. Your parents and other family members not only help you hook into the web, but also make sure that your place in it is as comfortable as possible. This demands knowledge of the rules of the web, of the right way to be. For their efforts to root and rank their children’s selves well, Asian parents receive heaps of filial piety: the blend of respect and responsibility that interdependent children feel toward their parents.

If you have an independent self, in contrast, these machinations seem downright unjust. Inherited hierarchies are an affront to independent notions of uniqueness, control, freedom, and equality (although, as we explore throughout this book, independent selves erect plenty of social ladders of their own). And though you know that you should “honor thy mother and father,” as the Bible says, you often jettison this commandment when it interferes with what you want to do. You want choices, not instructions.

The power of filial piety to motivate Asian Americans, on the one hand, and the power of personal choice to inspire European Americans, on the other, is already apparent in early elementary school, find psychologists Sheena Iyengar and Mark Lepper. In clever experiments, they first recruited seven- to nine- year- olds whose parents had either emigrated from East Asia or were born in the United States. The researchers then asked all the children to solve as many word- unscrambling puzzles as possible, but under different conditions. One-third of the children got to choose the topic of the puzzles (for example, animals, a party, or food). The second third did not get to choose because the researchers had already chosen the puzzle topic for them. But the third group learned that their own mothers had chosen their topic, just for them. Which of these conditions would make you feel most driven to solve as many puzzles as quickly and as correctly as possible? Which condition would undermine your motivation?

If you had an independent self, you would probably perform like the European- American kids in this experiment. You would probably thrive when you got to choose the puzzles by yourself, for yourself, but would balk when someone told you which puzzles to work on— especially if that someone was your own mother.

But if you had an interdependent self, you would probably solve the most puzzles in the “mom condition,” as did the Asian- American kids in this study. For you, as for these children, your mother’s involvement would inspire you. She has shown you the way, and now it’s your job to follow it.

Here’s a starker demonstration of the importance of parents for Asians and of choice for European Americans: Your house is on fire. Inside, your mother is asleep in one bedroom and your spouse is asleep in another bedroom. You have time to rescue only one of them. Whom would you save?

Susan Cross, Tsui- Feng Wu, and their colleagues posed this dilemma to hundreds of European- American and Taiwanese students. True to the spirit of fi lial piety, the interdependent Taiwanese students more frequently chose to save their mother. And true to the power of choice, the independent American students more often chose to save the person they had chosen for themselves: their spouse.


Majority Rules

Even in tight- knit East- Asian cultures, parents aren’t always there to show their children the way. What happens then? Do Easterners finally strike out on their own and express their independence? Or do they search for other interdependent cues to guide them?

To find out, Kim and Hazel went to that bastion of confusion and anonymity, the San Francisco International Airport. There, they tapped Asians heading home to Taiwan, Japan, and Korea, as well as European Americans traveling to destinations in East Asia, and asked them to fill out a short questionnaire.

Supposedly as a gift for completing the questionnaire, the researchers next offered participants a pen. And then the real experiment began. Half the time, the researcher extended four pens with orange barrels and one pen with a green barrel, and invited the participant to choose one to keep. The other half of the time, the researcher offered four green pens and one orange pen for the participant’s choosing. Using their independent selves, the European- American travelers took this experiment as an opportunity to go their own way. They overwhelmingly picked the unique pen, the one whose color was different from the other four. Yet most Asian participants chose the “majority” pen. In other words, when there was one orange pen and four green pens, European Americans usually selected the orange pen, but Asians tended to take a green one. Absent any other cues of which pen was the right one, Asians defaulted to the more common pen color— the one that the previous and next participant were more likely to choose. Like the firefighters who enjoyed the thought of their friend’s buying the same car, these participants also wanted to fit in with a group— even in an anonymous three- minute experiment.


Stick Out or Fit In?

Steven Heine witnessed the clash of independence and interdependence from the other side of the Pacific. As an English teacher at a high school in Japan, his students were earnest, diligent, and respectful. Yet they were not progressing as fast as Heine had hoped. Eager to distinguish himself as a good teacher, he tried to rouse his charges to Anglophone greatness. He did what his teachers back in Canada had done. When students answered correctly, he praised them. When they erred, he nevertheless found something to compliment. And when a big test was on the horizon, he delivered pep talks, assuring them that they could do whatever they wanted, as long as they believed in themselves. Still, his class’s performance trailed, until one day, Heine overheard a Japanese colleague lecturing. The teacher expressed grave disappointment that his students were falling further behind his expectations. He told them to be very worried that their skills were still so poor. And he warned them that their lessons were going to get even more difficult, so they should expect to spend long hours studying.

Heine winced at the words. But then he saw that, rather than slumping in their seats and staring at their shoes, the students were straightening their backs, squaring their shoulders, and setting their jaws in determination. Words that would have deflated his European- Canadian friends and family spurred these Japanese students into action. Sure enough, when he unleashed a similar tongue- lashing on his own students, they perform much better on their tests.

Years later, Heine was still asking, “Why did the Japanese students respond so well to criticism?” Everything he knew about psychology told him that people react best to praise. As a newly minted cultural psychologist, he took his question into the laboratory. His team gave European- Canadian and Japanese students the same creativity test. Partway through the experiment, the researchers told half the participants that they were rocking the test, but the other half that they were botching it.

Like many Western researchers before them, Heine and his colleagues showed that the European Canadians persisted longer after the success feedback than after the failure feedback. These participants had found something that they were “good” at— something that would allow them to stand out— and so they stayed with it. But negative feedback deterred them; the test was not an opportunity for them to show their selves in a favorable light. The Japanese students did just the opposite. They persisted longer when they believed they were flunking the test than when they thought they were acing it. Having learned that they were not yet up to snuff , they doubled down and worked even harder. To them, the test was not a stage on which to strut their stuff or hide their flaws. It was a place to learn what the standard was and then to try their best to meet it.

Westerners set their selves apart in other ways. When Hazel asked her European- American Stanford undergraduates, “What percentage of students in this university are smarter than you?” they estimated that only 30 percent of the other students outshone them. In other words, they saw themselves as smarter than 70 percent of the student body. But when Shinobu asked his Kyoto University students the same question, they reckoned that about 50 percent of the students were smarter. In other words, they saw themselves as average, in the middle, normal. This self- estimation showed both social awareness and statistical savvy: chances are, you are average on a given trait in a given population.  Tests of self- esteem similarly reveal the Western drive to individuate and feel great about one’s self versus the Eastern drive to relate and adjust one’s self to other people. Across several studies, European Canadians clock dramatically higher self- esteem scores than do Japanese students.  Americans raised on the belief that psychological health requires high self- esteem might conclude that the Japanese students must be depressed.

Yet the opposite seems to be true; Japan has fewer cases of depression than the United States, even when researchers use the most conservative and culturally sensitive measurements.


This arti­cle has been adapted by arrange­ment with Hud­son Street Press, a mem­ber of Pen­guin Group (USA) Inc., from CLASH! By Hazel Rose Markus, Ph.D., and Alana Conner, Ph.D. Copyright 2013 By Hazel Rose Markus, Ph.D., and Alana Conner, Ph.D